There’s no single correct path to a productive conversation about race in this country. But for those looking to make some progress on that journey, “Redwood” would seem like an excellent place to start.
Brittany K. Allen’s play — finally appearing on stage at the Jungle Theater after a COVID-forced hiatus of almost two years — blends comedy and tragedy; history and contemporary zeitgeist. It’s deeply personal, it’s universal and it gives anyone interested in doing so tools to name and engage in some ugly truths about American history.
Oh, and it’s also entertaining.
The story centers on Meg and Drew, an interracial couple who have just moved in together. They’re still picking their way through the intricacies of cohabitation when they learn from a zealous uncle’s genealogy project that Meg’s family is descended from enslaved people on a Kentucky plantation … and that Drew’s ancestors owned that plantation and those people.
Not uncomfortable enough? Uncle Stevie’s research also reveals that Meg and Drew are distantly related through the children produced by the enslaved Alameda and her owner, Tatum, in generations past.
This is hot-iron news that not everyone can bring themselves to touch. Meg’s mother Beverly muses that perhaps Alameda and Tatum might have been star-crossed lovers, like in the movies.
“Like ‘12 Years a Slave?’ ‘Amistad?’ ” asks Meg.
“Like ‘Showboat,’ ” responds Beverly.
Meg and Drew, meanwhile, struggle to find the ground rules for discussion; the words to express the unspeakable; a route to something approaching mutual understanding. There’s no tidy sentiment, but Meg comes closest when she expresses her fear to Drew that she’ll “be erased or catastrophically hurt … even by accident.”
It’s tough stuff that more describes than attempts to untangle a Gordian Knot of facts and feelings. Allen, the playwright, unspools it a little at a time, leavening her story with humor and the context of a world preoccupied with more mundane and manageable family problems.
But just when you think she’s going to let you off the hook with some easily digestible, feel-good happy ending … bam! She hits you with one more strike to the psyche that will leave your nerves tingling.
The Jungle production shows no sign of staleness after sitting on the shelf for two years. In the central roles, China Brickey and Kevin Fanshaw finely and fearlessly etch muddy emotions while simultaneously displaying good chemistry. As Meg’s mother, Beverly, Thomasina Petrus ably reflects the paradox of living with a history while living in the present.
Bruce A. Young plays the “funemployed” Uncle Stevie like the proverbial bull in a china shop (T. Mychael Rambo takes over the role March 1). Morgen Chang displays the most range in a supporting cast that assumes many roles and also includes Dwight Leslie, Dana Lee Thompson and Max Wojtanowicz.
Director H. Adam Harris finely calibrates mood and pacing. He’s less successful at addressing my main challenge with the play: “Redwood” is a complicated tale, and the playwright backs into the story, beginning with a scene an in “advanced intermediate” hip-hop dance class that introduces a gauzy framing device. The characters emerge slowly and it takes most of the first act to understand who’s who and to gauge what’s central and what’s peripheral.
Hold on through the muddle, though. “Redwood” blazes trails through uncomfortable — and for many (especially for many white people) uncharted territory. It’s a journey as worthwhile as it is necessary.
If you go
- What: “Redwood”
- When: Through Match 13
- Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave S., Minneapolis
- Tickets: $45
- Information: 612-822-7063 or jungletheater.org
- Health check: Vaccination (age 12+) and mask required. Alternately, audiences of all ages may produce proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of performance.
- Capsule: Love, family and history collide. Who survives — and how?